What’s cooler than writing a gambling memoir about the time you and your gambling buddy won $250,000 on a 50/1 longshot to win the Kentucky Derby, then traveled to Tijuana — along with a pal who hit the same winner for $1 million — to collect your cash from a cartel-backed racetrack?
Writing that memoir and referring to yourself in the third-person as “Miami,” your Don Johnson-inspired ’80s nickname, from start to finish.
Such is the case with Southern California commercial real estate investor and first-time author Mark Paul’s The Greatest Gambling Story Ever Told: A True Tale of Three Gamblers, the Kentucky Derby, and the Mexican Cartel. The book recounts the thoroughbred racing season of 1988, when Mark “Miami” Paul, along with pals “Dino” and “Big Bernie,” drove to Tijuana’s Agua Caliente racetrack to place futures bets on a three-year-old filly named Winning Colors to win the Kentucky Derby.
Five months later, after Winning Colors became just the third female champion in Derby history, the bettors had to return to Mexico, convince the track’s cartel-linked owner to make good on payouts worth $250,000 to Miami and Dino and $1 million for Big Bernie, and then smuggle the cash back into the United States without getting robbed along the way or caught by Customs. (The owner, Jorge Hank Rohn, who went on to serve as mayor of Tijuana from 2004 to 2007, was arrested during a 2011 Mexican military police raid of his compound that turned up 88 weapons and 9,000 rounds of ammunition, and is still one of Mexico’s wealthiest and most controversial businessmen.)
Paul’s romp of a book is well-told at 184 pages, cutting back and forth between the parallel narratives of Winning Colors’ path from being bought at auction in 1986 to her victory at the Derby almost two years later and the trio of gamblers plotting and then executing the score of a lifetime. The prose is direct, with few words spent on any literary device besides exposition, and this brevity allows Paul’s storytelling to race along at its own Triple Crown-worthy pace.
That breezy quality has helped Paul’s book become an unexpected hit, logging 10,000 sales since its January 2020 release and holding steady as Amazon’s top-selling horse racing title at the time of this article’s publication. Most books put out by major publishing firms like Hachette and Crown can’t match those numbers.
For a California real estate executive’s self-published gambling memoir to achieve that level of success — well, let’s just say the odds would be far greater than 50/1.
But is Paul’s story really the “greatest” gambling tale ever?
Miami and Dino and Big Bernie’s grand adventure certainly possesses the elements of a spectacular gambling yarn. There’s that spark of genius, the bettors’ intuition that compels them to pick a female winner against the fastest colts in the world, in the most famous race in the world. There’s the drama of sweating out Winning Colors’ races in the months leading up to the Derby, including her first loss, at Santa Anita Park in February 1988. And there’s the whiff of danger — occasionally exploding into a full-on bouquet — that comes with each trip the gamblers make to Tijuana.
But does this story beat Chris Moneymaker accidentally entering an online satellite tournament that led to his berth and victorious run in the 2003 World Series of Poker, inspiring the mid-aughts poker boom along the way? Yeesh, that’s tough.
Does Miami’s bet on Winning Colors top Patricia DeMauro’s 2009 craps run in Atlantic City? The New Jersey grandma, playing craps for the second time in her life, threw the dice 154 times over almost four hours and 20 minutes without rolling a seven. The odds of that occurring are around 5,000,000,000-to-1. Forget the 50/1 Derby longshot.
How would we even begin to compare stories?
The point here is not just that betting lore is packed with sensational tales, but also that it’s impossible to determine, with any certainty, that one gambling saga is better than another. (Except for any story that ends with Floyd Mayweather Jr. holding a money phone of shrink-wrapped hundred-dollar bills up to his head. All gambling stories are better than that.)
University of Nevada-Las Vegas gaming historian David G. Schwartz, author of Roll the Bones: The History of Gambling, could barely be troubled to ponder a question as unanswerable as “what is is the greatest gambling story ever told?”
“I can’t confirm or deny that it may be the greatest story ever told,” Schwartz said. “I don’t think that this is the kind of thing someone can objectively measure, so there doesn’t seem to be much point in quibbling about which story might be the greatest, second greatest, third greatest, et cetera. Suffice it to say that there are many very interesting stories in the history of gambling.”
Paul’s story, which crescendoes with the hiring of three professional mixed martial artists to provide security as Miami, Dino, and Big Bernie cross the border one last time to meet with the Agua Caliente boss and convince him to release their winnings, is undeniably epic. But the strongest antidote to the title’s grandiose claim is that Paul’s gambling story might not even be the greatest in his own book.
Luis Palos, the groom hired to care for Winning Colors day in and day out, was a 25-year-old immigrant from Mexico City back then, and he saved enough money to bet $2,000 on her to win the Derby at 100/1 odds. The tender relationship Paul describes between Palos and the temperamental horse strums deeper emotional motifs than any other part of the book, and when Palos wins $200,000 while watching his beloved filly accomplish something only two other horses like her had ever done before and none have done since, the moment evokes more than just a thrilling gambling tale — it almost restores one’s belief in the American Dream.